Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Punctuations begin to appear in the Equilibrium

If the Theory of Evolution has been one of the most powerful and far-reaching ideas to enterhuman consciousness in the past few hundred years, then the theory of punctuated equilibrium is among the most intriguing of refinements on the theory. In essence, this gloss on the Theory suggests that evolution generally proceeds gradually, but from time to time there are dramatically rapid changes that occur in species over much shorter periods.


In my experience, the same sort of thing seems to happen even with technology -- there are relatively short periods during which a variety of different technological innovations occur within a field, each competiting for market space. Eventually, there is a shakeout and just one or two major designs break away from the pack, not only growing in strength, but also cannibalizing the rest. The winning technological paradigm gets steadily refined over many years until there comes a point when a variety of rather different technologial innovations appear on the horizon based on completely different paradigms. A similar sort of process begins again, with a number of competiting designs and a few eventual winners. The new technology paradigms may emerge to occupy a distinct market niche without knocking the old technology off its perch, or they may in fact challenge the dominance of the old technology, either causing its complete extinction, or pushing it to the margins of the market.

It happened with personal computers, which sprouted in the 1970s in the wake of the introduction of the first microprocessors by Intel Corp. There were dozens of different vendors of such machines, each based on different hardware and software designs. Initially, the space was dominated by Apple Computer, Inc., but after 1981, PCs based on IBM's hardware reference design, Intel's x86 processors and Microsoft's DOS (and later, Windows) operating system nearly completely crushed all of the rest. Over 90% of desktop, mobile and even a significant fraction of the server market are founded on current iterations of the original designs from Microsof, Intel and IBM (called Wintel -- Windows and Intel).

It now seems that we are in for another one of those punctuations in the equilibrium with the imminent emergence of netbooks and smartbooks -- the former being tiny laptops, and the latter being very small mobile personal computers based on high-end cellphone technologies and the Linux operating system. It gets even better: the new machines come in all sorts of exotic, experimental forms that some call Franken-Products since they appear to be constituted of bits and pieces of other forms of digital devices. The technologies are exploring

A sign of changes that transcend technology is the change of locale -- the original personal computer revolution occurred in the San Francisco Bay area immortalized with the moniker, Silicon Valley. The current punctuation in the personal technology equilibrium is occurring on the other side of the Pacific: in Taiwan, Korea, and China. Not even Japan, that once seemingly inexhaustible source of Technology Encounters of the Small Kind figures in the equation. That Great Technology Show in the Desert in Las Vegas, Comdex, has disappeared into the vast barrenness and the New Technology Show called Computex is located in Taipei. A lot of exploration is going on in company labs:
Certainly, odd combinations of hardware, software and service providers were everywhere at Computex. In addition to the traditional systems consumers have known for years — those that run Microsoft’s Windows operating system on top of an Intel chip — computer makers showed off devices that rely on glorified cellphone chips and Google’s Android operating system.

Machines with touch screens dangled the promise of escaping the tyranny of the keyboard in favor of intuitive finger-pointing. And, in back rooms, phone companies aggressively promoted tiny computers that bridge the gap between smartphones and laptops.
There is no doubt that at least some of the products will turn out to be disruptive if only because of their relatively low price.
This month, consumers will start to see a fresh crop of cheap, thin, ultra-light notebooks arrive at chains like Wal-Mart Stores and Best Buy. Top-of-the-line computers in this category used to cost around $2,000, but the newer products will sell for less than $600.

Too expensive? The computer industry offers other options. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Asustek Computer are introducing lines of netbooks, the sub-$400 laptops aimed at simple tasks.

And if all you want to do is browse the Web, the latest netbooks shown here, built around cellphone chips, can display high-definition video and still last for up to 18 hours on a single charge. They should start appearing in stores this fall for less than $150 and weigh less than two pounds.
A lot of the technology is just engineerings playing around with what is possible rather than carefully determining what people might actually want. In this sense too, this is much like how biological evolution works -- mutations occurring on their own driven by internal forces then being selected in (or out) by the environment, rather than mutations occurring on demand based on requirements specified by the environment. There is no all-knowing, guiding hand of the sort that the proponents of 'Intelligent Design' posit that asks for specific technology designs to be made. From the one (supply) end, ideas emerge of their own accord (in some sense), from the minds of scientists, engineers and designers, and from the other (demand) end the market accepts (selects in) or rejects (selects out) ideas based on their evolving needs and wants.
At the feathery end of the weight scale, Asustek, the Taiwanese company that created netbooks, even promoted a computer that is just a keyboard with a small screen attached to its right side. The keyboard connects wirelessly to the Internet and lets people crank away at their e-mail, instant messages and documents.

On the show floor, it seemed that anything with a display took on laptop-like functions. There were pads to scribble on, smart photo frames that connected to the Web and videoconferencing systems aimed at consumers rather than corporate customers.

Some of the products ran Windows, some ran Android software and some ran software that most people have never heard about. The “Intel inside” notion still held for most of the machines, but quite a few had Snapdragon from Qualcomm, Tegra from Nvidia and Ion, also Nvidia, chips inside, too.

Even on the larger, more traditional PCs, the beige box has given way to computers with LCD panels, touch-screen software and decorated cases — some with floral patterns meant to appeal to a woman.
It is sometimes asserted that Apple is not really an innovative company but one that takes successful existing innovations and makes them more marketable -- the iPod being a case in point: personal music players based on mp3 audio compression technology were already on the market for several years before Apple made a splash with its own variant and thenwent on to pretty much own the space for personal media players. In fact, this is not really a bad thing: Apple could be viewed as a purveyor of Intelligent Design -- rather than randomly fling technologies at the market hoping that something would stick, the company experiments with a variety of ideas and then releases only those products that it has, through exploration, evidence collection and calculation meets, or exceeds market needs for well-designed expressions of enginering ideas. And while Apple occasionally stumbles (as with the Cube and Newton), more often than not, it gets things right.

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